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An Argument Between Liberals

May 21, 2012

Not long ago, John Medaille quipped that “in any argument between a liberal and a liberal, the liberal will win every time.” In Medaille’s view, modern conservatism is not actually conservative insofar as it favors rugged individualism in the economic sphere—or what Karl Marx called “economic liberalism.” Medaille’s point is that when it comes time for conservatives to defend religion and the traditional family, what they find is that they have already conceded the philosophical grounds of their position to liberals.

It seems to me that conservatism is in even worse shape that Medaille realizes. For if Medaille’s analysis were adequate, conservatism could save itself merely by abandoning economic liberalism. And yet the influence of liberalism on religious conservatives has not been limited to economics, as I hope to show.

One key feature of liberalism is the public/private distinction. As articulated by John Locke, this distinction holds that civil magistrates ought to provide for the material needs of a society—by protecting private property, enforcing laws, and other measures—while it is the responsibility of the church to care for souls. The effect of this division, as Stanley Fish explains, is to honor religion by “kicking it upstairs and out of sight.” Fish continues:

If the business of everyday life — commerce, science, medicine, law, agriculture, education, foreign policy, etc. — can be assigned to secular institutions employing secular reasons to justify actions, what is left to religious institutions and religious reasons is a private area of contemplation and worship, an area that can be safely and properly ignored when there are “real” decisions to be made. Let those who remain captives of ancient superstitions and fairy tales have their churches, chapels, synagogues, mosques, rituals and liturgical mumbo-jumbo; just don’t confuse the (pseudo)knowledge they traffic in with the knowledge needed to solve the world’s problems.

It is not difficult to see why the Catholic Church has historically rejected Locke’s public/private distinction. What is less easy to comprehend is its usage by religious conservatives in recent controversies over contraception and gay marriage. The traditional Church teaching is that contraception violates natural law, which in theory can be understood by reason alone, and is therefore wrong for Catholics and non-Catholics alike. Supposing that this line of reasoning is correct, it follows that the HHS Ruling is an unjust law: for it would be absurd to claim that a woman has a right to what is in fact a wrong. One would expect a bold public defense of Church teaching from Catholic polemists. And yet most of the anti-HHS rhetoric has been libertarian in tone, with Obama depicted as the tyrant and the Catholic Church as the noble champion of religious liberty. Many of Obama’s religious critics end up treating religious liberty–which, let us not forget, was one of the primary outcomes of the public/private distinction made by Enlightenment thinkers–as a moral absolute, as though the content of religious teachings were beside the point.

When on the offensive–as they have been since Obama announced his support for gay marriage and Andrew Sullivan reiterated his support for Obama–religious conservatives take a somewhat different approach. The Church’s teaching that sex and marriage exist for the sake of procreation is, in the gay marriage debate, understood to be the very basis of civilization. As with contraception, one would expect some kind of explanation as to why this should be the case. (To his credit, Rod Dreher recently attempted one.) And as with contraception, this is generally what we don’t get. Instead, religious conservatives contrast the desire of “radical” homosexuals to impose their agenda on society with the liberal tolerance of Christians. Consider this excerpt from a post at The American Catholic—a post linked to approvingly by Mark Shea:

In the case of “gay marriage”, the big lie is that there is some desire on the part of conservatives and Christians in this country to actually deny some right, some liberty, some freedom to people who identify themselves and live as homosexuals. As abhorrent, disordered and immoral as I find the “gay lifestyle” to be, the truth is that – and here I speak for virtually every conservative Christian I know or have read – we really are not the least bit interested in micro-managing the sex-lives of our fellow citizens. We have absolutely no desire to have uniformed gendarmes kick in your bedroom doors to make sure no acts of sodomy are taking place in the middle of the night.

. . . To be even more specific, to the gay couple we say: we do not care if you visit one another in the hospital. We do not care if you grant one another medical power of attorney. We do not care if you jointly own property. We do not care if you leave property for each other inherit when one of you dies. We do not care if you own a home together and live in it. We do not care if you get dressed up, rent a local hall, stage whatever sort of ceremony you like, and even refer to yourselves as “married.”

There is apparently nothing which this blogger is not willing to grant his opponent, so long as it is kept private. This raises the question: if this blogger has no objection to gay marriage as a private institution what, exactly, is it that he objects to? The post continues:

But there is one thing you cannot have, and it is the one thing you seek through this radical political agenda, these hysterical protests and complaints about Christians: our approval.

In this blogger’s view, it is not religion that out to be kicked upstairs and out of sight, but homosexuality–kicked into a closet presumably. The homosexual is to be tolerated so long as he is not seen or heard from. He may even marry, so long as he and his spouse remain safely in the closet. Locke’s private/public distinction has been turned upside down.

Meanwhile, a uniquely Catholic understanding of the meaning of sex and marriage is simply assumed to be normative:

Let me be blunt: your disordered lifestyles are not equal to the traditional marriage or the traditional family, which have served as the foundation of civilization since its very beginnings. You do not deserve equal prestige, and nor, for that matter, do “straight” couples who actively choose not to procreate.

It turns out, then, that this blogger does not wish to simply “live and let live,” but has a distinctive view of sex and marriage that he simply assumes ought to form the basis for public policy. And this, it turns out, is what is the matter with the libertarian rhetoric that comprises the first two-thirds of the post. There is no neutral ground in the gay marriage debate: one side will inevitably impose its view on the other. In that sense, this blogger is right: what the pro-gay marriage side seeks is to have its viewpoint publicly enshrined. What needs to be pointed out, however, is that so does the anti-gay marriage side.

Circling back to the HHS ruling, the rhetorical inconsistency of religious conservatives is striking. Church teaching is to be at once understood as private and idiosyncratic (HHS ruling) and as the foundation of civilization (gay marriage). One is tempted to conclude that the inconsistency is due to political expedience. I am more inclined, however, to think that it is simply an incoherence due to the fact that religious conservatives are less conservative in their thinking than they actually realize–and not only with respect to economics.

This is unfortunate for their side insofar as in an argument between liberals, the liberal always wins.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. May 21, 2012 3:25 am

    Hi. I’m the author of the original blog post at TAC. I plan on posting a rebuttal to this post there.

    Look for it soon 🙂


  1. Liberalism & Natural Law: A Response | The American Catholic

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